The most intriguing question of this year's Ravens draft isn't whether Jimmy Smith will fall to the Ravens near the bottom of the first round. It's whether the Ravens will select the talented yet flawed cornerback from Colorado.
Smith has the size to press Andre Johnson. He has the speed to match up with Santonio Holmes. And he has a past that could cause some NFL decision-makers to shudder.
The red flags with Smith include at least one failed drug test (some have reported as many as four) and two arrests for underage possession of alcohol.
The Ravens have yet to take a public stance on Smith. "We've spent time with him, and we have yet to finalize the board, so we've yet to make any decisions about any player at all," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said last week. "We'll continue to do that over the next however many days, and we'll make a decision then."
Smith is among several players whose character issues are being scrutinized by the Ravens. Prospects who had pre-draft visits to Ravens headquarters included: Pittsburgh defensive end-linebacker Jabaal Sheard (arrested last summer for allegedly throwing a man through a glass door); Illinois inside linebacker Martez Wilson (suspended one game for violation of team rules and stabbed in back outside a bar); and North Carolina wide receiver Greg Little (missed last season because he accepted improper gifts from an agent).
When it comes to determining character in players, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said he believes in the track record of DeCosta and general manager Ozzie Newsome.
"Ozzie and Eric do as good a job as anybody in the league in balancing that risk-reward equation," Bisciotti said. "We have a great scouting staff, and we are projecting kids to become men. There is only so much you can hold against kids in the mistakes that they make."
Bisciotti added: "In years past, I have salivated over guys they've got at the bottom of our board — in effect, taken them off our board. And I won't give you their names, but the guys they've taken off our board have a high rate of failure in the NFL. So, you have to balance that risk-reward and you have to take chances sometimes. And every case is different."
The Ravens took a gamble last year on linebacker Sergio Kindle, using a second-round pick (and their top one in the 2010 draft) on a player who had two car accidents (including a DUI) and a report that he takes medication for narcolepsy and attention deficit disorder.
Kindle then missed his entire rookie season when he fractured his skull after falling down two flights of stairs last summer. He was later arrested Dec. 26 for driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, according to court records. His court date is May 18.
Asked whether he second-guesses his decision to draft Kindle, Newsome said: "To have been able to sit here the day we picked Sergio and say that he was going to fall down a flight of stairs, I couldn't predict that one. We'll wait and see how that outcome is going to be. But that story is not completely written yet."
It'll be interesting to see whether the Ravens are ready to gamble again with Smith, who is considered a top-10 talent by most draft experts but almost certainly won't be taken that high because of character issues. Although he could go as high as No. 13 to the Detroit Lions, he likely will slide toward the bottom of the first round.
If the Philadelphia Eagles pass on Smith with the 23rd overall pick, there probably will be a major decision awaiting the Ravens at No. 26.
The Ravens are one of the teams that could handle Smith, according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
"Philly and Baltimore are two of the teams that draft in the 20s that both could use a big corner and both have locker rooms whose infrastructure may be able to handle a kid like that and get him on the right path," Mayock said. "The kid has a lot of issues, man. Jimmy Smith has unlimited upside. … However, he comes with a buyer-beware caution."
Michael Lombardi of NFL Network said those concerns could push Smith into the second round.
"He's never actually been in a lot of trouble, but he's been around trouble," Lombardi said. "You have to handle that and decide what risk you'll take on, what responsibility you want to assume based on what round you want to do that in. Ultimately, you will be judged."
Lombardi added, "The bottom of the first round, I think that's a risk maybe a lot of teams might not want to take as they move forward, especially how they define character."
Others say Smith has convinced teams in interviews that his issues are in the past.